For as long as there have been movies, there have been war movies filled with heroic everymen who just want to go home safe to their families but cannot, at least until they defeat their unquestionably evil enemies. Gavin Hood’s 2015 movie Eye in the Sky eschews the normal war movie clichés and instead tackles the moral ambiguity of drone warfare. The film begins as Colonel Katharine Powell (Helen Mirren) prepares for a mission six years in the making—the capture of a British national turned terrorist Susan Danford inside a house in Nairobi. When Powell discovers that Danford and the others are preparing two suicide vests, the whole mission changes. The politicians gathered to watch Danford’s capture bicker over rules of engagement, risk assessments, and public relations fallout as they watch the terrorists prepare suicide vests for two young volunteers. The tension ratchets upwards as the terrorists grow closer to leaving for their intended targets and as a young girl sells bread on the street just outside the house. Through this web of escalating circumstances, politicians and lawyers pass the responsibility ever upwards. All of them elected or appointed to make crucial decisions, but unwilling to actually make them.
|Helen Mirren as Katharine Powell|
Eye in the Sky’s superb cast sells the ethical debates—which at times seem straight out of a graduate seminar in philosophy—caused by the use of drone warfare in civilian areas. Mirren shines as Powell. She is tough and sure of her mission, demanding that the bureaucrats above her make a decision and manipulating the circumstances to ensure they accede to her wishes. She is determined to kill her target, even at the cost of the little girl’s life. Mirren’s skill comes in portraying Powell as determined, but not villainous. Her motivations are understandable, relatable, and come from a desire to protect civilian lives. The late Alan Rickman plays Mirren’s superior, a general who oversees her mission in the company of some high ranking British cabinet officials. What begins as a capture mission evolves into a kill one when the suicide vests appear. It is Rickman who must forcefully and continually remind the government officials of the ticking clock—eventually those men are going to put their suicide vests on and use them. Aaron Paul plays a conflicted American drone pilot who refuses to launch a missile at the house until the little girl is given an opportunity to escape from the killing zone. His quiet, but firm resistance forces Powell to risk the life of an asset on the ground to get the girl out of the way.
The film veers towards but never quite crosses over into farce. There are moments when the lunacy of the entire exercise becomes almost Kubrickian. One British official suggests that they let the suicide bombers leave and complete their mission (killing perhaps hundreds of people) in order to gain a propaganda victory rather than risk killing the little girl. In another moment, the American secretary of state points out that they have 3 of the most wanted terrorists in East Africa preparing two suicide vests and are bickering over legalities. The film, however, shifts back to depicting the emotional cost. After the mission, a devastated Paul and his co-pilot walk out of their little shed only to be reminded by their commanding officer that they’re due back in twelve hours—potentially to do this all over again. Rickman’s general chides one of the officials who condemns them all for potentially killing the girl. He tells her, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” Whatever the tone of the film, Eye in the Sky raises troubling questions of the ethics of war and the reticence of our own leaders to take responsibility for their own actions.